Winter flooding concerns

Becky Vargo • Jul 21, 2015 at 12:09 PM

Water was flowing swiftly and freely under the bridge.

That wasn't the case on Wednesday when the Ottawa County Emergency Services manager put the area on alert after being notified that an ice jam was beginning to form at the bridge.

The National Weather Service already had a flood watch posted for the area Wednesday afternoon.

Local police officers checked on the ice jam overnight. Sgt. Glen Bo of the Grand Haven Department of Public Safety said it broke between 10 and 11 p.m. Wednesday.

“This morning, all of the ice was gone,” he said Thursday. “The water is flowing real well now.”

Both Thomas and Bo said seeing the ice start to pile up reminded them of the big ice jam of 2008-09.

“I’ll never forget it,” Bo said. “That spring, my basement flooded. That jam had some huge debris."

Bo said there was a lot of snowfall in December 2008, then a big thaw. Flood waters took big chunks of ice and debris down the river until it got caught on the bridges.

It becomes a problem on the river when the ice and debris build up to the point that they create something like a dam, explained Jim Maczko, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Grand Rapids.

“You have some build-up behind it, but the bigger threat is when the jams break free and you have rapid flooding,” he said.

In late December 2008, the water rose quickly behind the jam and started flooding yards along the Grand River and in some of the local bayous. Emergency workers, residents and friends worked together for hours to fill sandbags and build barriers as the water rose in Spring Lake’s Lloyd’s Bayou.

The jam broke later that night and the water level receded.

Two months later, the Coast Guard cutter Katmai Bay responded to the area from the Straits of Mackinac, where it had been clearing a path for a freighter. The cutter took a trip up the Grand River, almost to the railroad bridge, to break up the ice.

Bo said Wednesday’s ice jam, in comparison to the one in 2008-09, “was very minimal.” The chunks of ice were a lot smaller and the water level is much lower.

“We have to get a whole lot more water and rain for it to be an issue,” Bo said. “The good thing was, the river was still flowing very well beyond the ice jam, and the south channel was completely open.”

Officials say they will continue to monitor for flooding and ice jams, as temperatures fluctuate.

After several days of single-digit highs last week, the area experienced a January thaw earlier this week. The thermometer crept up to near 60 on Tuesday. It was well into the 60s in other parts of Michigan.

The recent increase in precipitation has also contributed to water levels rising, and that is expected to continue over the next few days, said National Weather Service meteorologist Brandon Hoving. Still, flooding is not expected for Ottawa County.

“While the river will continue to rise, it won’t get near as high as it would have if the ice jam remained in place,” Hoving said.

Precipitation has been above normal for January, Maczko said. Since Jan. 1, we've received about 4 inches of rain or melted snowfall — about 2 inches above normal.

Since Dec. 1, 2012, there has been 6.7 inches of precipitation in the Lakeshore area. That's 2.11 inches above normal for December and January, Maczko said.

The National Weather Service forecast for the next several days calls for highs in the upper teens to about 20, then climbing into the upper 20s on Wednesday. Snow showers are possible through Monday.

Thomas said county officials would continue to monitor the river.

“It just makes you monitor more, anytime you get this big fluctuation in temperature,” she said.

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